Thursday, December 5, 2019

Stick a Bow on It

Yesterday morning I texted some of my girlfriends that I thought it likely I could meet them for lunch. Then I went on to the school where we were finishing up our free book fair. Tracy, my captain (my captain!) and partner in crime, walked in and laughed at me. "Lunch?" she said. "That's optimistic. But for sure you're not going without me."

Then we went to work. We gave away books to kindergartners and preschoolers, stopping fights over copies of The True Stories of the Three Little Pigs ("you can both chose it!") and consoling one small boy who wept when we put the books he chose back onto the table (because we're ordering the children their own copies; he didn't understand, and kept saying, "but I wanted them to be mine.") by giving him a Very Hungry Caterpillar temporary tattoo. After the children had chosen and I'd inputted their orders and we'd rounded up the older children who'd been absent the day before, and had them chose, and then I'd ordered their books, and I'd corrected the orders I'd screwed up the day before, Tracy and I went through each class's book lists. Tracy made copies of the lists for the teachers and color-coded them so the teachers would know where the books were coming from (some we had on hand, some would be shipped direct to the teachers, some--mostly the kids who had been absent and my corrected screw-ups--would be shipped separately) and we made sure all the books in the teachers' boxes were correct. Then we sorted and packed the remaining books and put the room back to rights, and it was 3:30, we'd worked without a break, and Tracy was laughing at me. Lunch. Because she knew it was going to be like this, and I, blithely and predictably, had planned all the giving out books part but skipped the organization that needed to happen afterward.

Tracy and I are an excellent team.

Also, at about 1 o'clock in the afternoon, one of the lunch ladies brought us each a banana. I really appreciated that.

The lunch ladies were very enthusiastic about our book-giving. Their children and grandchildren go to the school.

My husband came home grumpy for valid reasons of his own. We set up the new television we'd bought the evening before. There was nothing wrong with our previous TV except that it was, suddenly, on December 1st, too old to receive Netflix. I don't really understand how this could happen, but it had. We'd gone in search of a TV that would fit in the cabinet in our family room--most TVs now are exactly half an inch too wide--and found one, and made very sure that it was a Smart TV, which is the kind that can still get Netflix. (I discovered Netflix a year ago, late as I am to most technology. I love it.)

We bought the TV and took it home. Last night we carefully unwrapped it and plugged all the cords in and messed around with the remotes and tried to activate Netflix, and lo, we hadn't bought a Smart TV. We'd bought the Stupid TV that was sitting right next to it.

I spent a bit of time online trying to figure out how to turn a Stupid TV into a Smart one. (Answer: put it back in the box, drive to the store, exchange.) My husband--already grumpy, remember--huffed and stalked off to the mudroom, and came back even grumpier, waving something and saying, "This is no good. Look at this!"

It was a piece of artificial garland for our stair rail--a new garland, because the old one wore out last year. Fresh from the shipping box it looked flat, fake, and unappealing. My husband sighed and muttered and began to work his Christmas magic. A half hour later he had the garland fluffy, well-lit, and hung with pine cones and glass balls. It was beautiful. He added a huge red grosgrain ribbon bow to the newel end of it. "Lipstick on a pig," he muttered, but he was smiling again. We sat down to dinner I'd made and watched Notre Dame get creamed in basketball, something we didn't need Netflix for at all.

It was a very good day.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Giving Tuesday: The Free Book Fairs Begin!

I've got ten minutes to compose this before I'm out the door. I just logged on to my email, and it was full of requests--Giving Tuesday is apparently a Thing.

Which is ironically excellent, since I'll be giving away books ALL DAY. It's the first of what will be ten (at least) days of rampant amazingness. We are descending on an elementary school right here in Bristol, Virginia side, and giving each and every student three brand-new books of their choice.

This joy comes courtesy of a whopping OMG Book Grant from First Book, and also from my wild audacity--when it came time to write the grant, I went big. And they gave big. And now we're going to give big, too.

The school in question earns a C+ grade in national rankings, which puts it squarely in the middle of the Bristol, Virginia, elementary schools. Ninety-eight percent of its students receive free lunch. It's a big old hulk of a building without much charm, but the teachers are doing a great job of educating their students. Yesterday some of them dropped by the room where we were setting up. (Five tables: picture books, early chapter books, nonfiction and graphic novels, two tables of chapter books. It's about 170 titles total. We're heavily in to free choice.) "Wow," one teacher said, "These aren't leftovers. They're good books."

Damn straight. New, shiny, gorgeous. Diverse. Interesting. We've got everything from Noisy Night to Dinosaurs A to Z to the graphic-novel version of Crossover. The Night Diary and The Bridge Home and Power Forward. Happy Hair. Judy B. Jones. All fourteen volumes of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

283 students. 849 books. It's gonna be a fine, fine day.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019


Today is my sister's thirty-third birthday. She was born on a Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving; I was in college, and remember it like it was yesterday. As it was, pretty much. She's expecting her fourth child, and her three boys and my brother's two are the crazy joys of the past decade of our family.

I am grateful today for a thousand million things. For my husband, who holds our lives together. For my children, both flying home tomorrow. For my dad, who's recovering from a serious illness, and my mom, who's recovering from seeing him through. I'm grateful for the book I finished in the past year. I'm grateful for the dog on my lap as I type this. For the silly black horse we unexpectedly brought into our family, and the glorious two we lost since this time last year.

I'm very, very grateful for my friends.

Flush toilets, washing machines and dishwashers, not to mention a safe and reliable water supply. Food and good meals. The pearly quality to winter sunrises on our farm. A sense of adventure, and adventures to go on. The losses that taught me to savor each day.

So many things.

I am grateful for the gift of words.

I learned a lot this year about words and their power. I thought I knew plenty already--I've been a writer for a long time--but between the seven and a half drafts of Fighting Words and the steady progress of my nonprofit, Appalachian Literacy Initiative--well, I now know more.

Did you know that in this country poor children are two and a half times less likely to read at proficient level than their more affluent classmates?

Did you know that reading proficiency at the end of fourth grade is the most powerful predictor of whether or not a child will graduate from high school?

Did you know that three out of five low-income children have no books at all in their homes? Or that the number of books a child has access to is the only thing that directly correlates to their reading success?

Give kids books = give kids a better future.

Last school year  my friend Tracy and I started ALI, earned 501(c)3 status for it, and gave out nearly three thousand books to 578 low-income fourth-graders across Appalachia.

Last year, one of our schools saw their fourth-graders' reading proficiency rise from 23% to 96%.

This year we've enrolled 1000 students in that same program. Each child gets four new high-quality books of their choice; their teachers get classroom libraries of 30 books.

This year we've also given Girls Inc in Bristol, Virginia, 120 books for their library. We've been able to buy books for the children enrolled in Boys and Girls Clubs in Bristol, Abingdon, and Wise.

Thanks to an amazing one-time grant we received from First Book, we're going to be able to offer "free book" fairs at all four Bristol, Virginia elementary schools and Bristol, Virginia Middle School. Every single child in every single grade will get to choose 3 books to keep.  Those book fairs start next week, Tuesday and Wednesday at Stonewall Jackson and Thursday and Friday at Highland View--if you live nearby and want to help, let me know. We could use more hands.

We could do so much more. Appalachia is a big region--there are far more isolated, low-income schools we long to help. If you'd like to join us, please do. Thanks to First Book and our corporate partner, Parnassus, we're able this year to buy more books with your donations. Last year it cost $32.50 to enroll a child in our program. We won't know our final numbers until the end of the school year, but so far we're on track to be close to $20.

$20 for one child for the year. $150 for the teacher's classroom books. $500 to sponsor an entire class. For donations of $1000 or more we'll put special bookplates in the books honoring the person of your choice. You can send checks to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at P.O. Box 3283, Bristol, TN, 37620. You can use the donate button on our website. Or you can click the Facebook button, above.

Thank you so much. We are so very grateful for you.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A Post for Leslea, and Everyone Else

I was going to write about some other stuff today--a combination of weird dumb things I've done lately (ask me where my car is parked right now; ask me why) (oh, okay--blocking the barn doors, because I left the lights on while doing an hour's worth of chores and ran the battery down, and that was a week ago and I still haven't bothered to jump it) and my plans for NCTE this weekend (all I will say there: ARCs of Fighting Words at 2 pm Saturday at the Penguin booth), but I got a little derailed by something, and it's bothering me.

Two somethings, really. The first is small: I continue to notice, when I look at the statistics on this blog, that the most-read post is whatever is the most recent one, which makes sense. The second most-read post is always, always, "A Touch on Lesbianism," a post I wrote in January, 2015. To find that post you'd have to search for it. Apparently a lot of people do. So apparently it's still a Thing.

The second thing bothering me is much bigger. The Nerdy Book Club posted an interview of me on their blog last week, about Fighting Words. The day before, they posted an essay by my friend Leslea Newman. (Her first name ought to have an accent on the a--it's pronounced Les-lee-ah, not Les-lee-- but I can not figure out how to put it there. I'm sorry, Leslea.) Leslea is a more accomplished and gifted writer than I am. She's published over 70 books in every genre--adult fiction, nonfiction, children's picture books, middle grades, YA, poetry for all ages--and she's a talented, compassionate teacher. She's Jewish. She grew up in Brooklyn. She's married to a woman.

Leslea structures her school presentations around sets of her books and a central theme. She offers lots of options for different ages and topics--easy to do when you've written so many marvelous stories. Recently she was scheduled to speak at two conservative Jewish schools in Brooklyn (where Leslea herself grew up) about her Jewish-themed picture books, including her recent Gittel's Journey: An Ellis Island Story, which is based on Leslea's own family history. A few days before the visit, the schools called to reconfirm that Leslea would only be talking about her Jewish books. She agreed that yes, she would be.

Then the schools cancelled anyway.

Leslea is also the author of the picture book Heather Has Two Mommies. She's also the author of October Mourning, a teen book about Matthew Shepard.

The schools were afraid she was going to talk about gay people. Or represent gay people. Or simply be a gay person that the students might come to like and respect. I'm not sure which. But Leslea wrote an essay about it, and it made me furious, on her behalf and on behalf of all the kids who missed out on hearing her. Who missed out on an important book about family and courage and Jewish identity. Who missed out on learning how to turn history and facts into poetry and beauty. Who missed out on meeting a woman they would like and respect, whom they might discover, at some point, was gay. Or not.

There are gay children at the schools who cancelled Leslea. There are children with gay parents at the schools who cancelled Leslea. There are children who will someday have gay children at the schools who cancelled Leslea. To pretend otherwise is to ignore truth.

We as a society have got to stop being afraid of gay people. Homosexuality isn't smallpox. You can't catch it from other people. It isn't syphilis. There shouldn't be any shame attached. You can belong to a religion that doesn't allow gay people to be married in your church, and still affirm the rights of gay people to be married under civil law and to be generally as decent as straight people. You don't have to hide their existence from your children. If your children haven't already figured out the existence of gay people, they will soon enough: all they learn from silence is shame. What's that Taylor Swift lyric? "Shame never made anybody less gay." But it might make them suicidal. Pushing another person toward suicide, that's a sin in any faith.

Most of the one-star reviews I get for The War That Saved My Life are from people outraged that I say that my character Susan Smith is gay. (It's not explicit in the books.) What might crack me up if I didn't find it so incredibly irritating is that the reviews often contain an edge of self-righteousness--"I don't hate gay people, I hate sin." Susan, not once, not ever, in either of my books featuring her, commits a sin of sexuality under any definition you could offer. She does not date nor seek to date nor have any sort of romantic or sexual relationship whatsoever. She does not pine for one. She's mourning someone who's been dead three years. For all any reader can tell, Susan may be planning to remain celibate the rest of her life--I myself don't know, because I'm not writing about that--which would render her, in any faith, spectacularly non-sinful. And still. This isn't something children should be exposed to? I can't understand the logic.

I also can't understand the hate. I read my Bible. Among other things, Deuteronomy forbids wearing mixed-fiber clothing, women cutting their hair, tattoos of any sort, and eating owls. Owning slaves is okay. Jesus never once talks about homosexuality, but he forbids divorce a whole bunch of times, and we're all okay with ignoring that.

I'm imaging a world in which a large percentage of the population hated anyone with red hair. Thought red hair was sinful. You could, of course, dye your hair so no one would know. Pretend to be raven-haired. Parents would sit down with their babies and swab their roots. Carefully dye each little eyebrow. Puberty would complicate matters--there's that private hair. You'd have to step up the concealment, or never reveal your private parts to anyone. And your hair would still be red. No matter what you did.

Leslea's website carries the tagline, "Changing the world, one book at a time."

My friend, I certainly hope so. Mazel tov on your work so far.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Requiem for the Best Horse

Every night since he died I've dreamed of Gully. I have a thousand memories, all of them good.

Some of them were only good in retrospect. The day he and his best friend, Syd, got loose at a horse trial, dive-bombed the adult beginner novice warmup area, then cavorted on the cross country course for half an hour before being caught? I was fairly ticked off at the time. Now, though, I remember the glee on Gully's face. I remember my daughter collapsing across a hay bale with silent laughter. It was a dozen years ago. I remember it like yesterday.

Before I got Gully, I had never evented, but I wanted to. My children were 5 and 2 when I had to retire my honest horse Trapper; we already had my son's cheerful pony Hot Wheels. We had just started building our house and barn and really I had no business getting another horse. This was still in the early days of the internet--when people sent you actual videotapes of sale horses instead of putting them online. I started looking at Connemaras--an Irish pony breed, known for their intelligence and athleticism--just, of course, for information's sake. For education.

Did I mention I had no business buying a horse? Did I mention I knew very little about eventing?

I'd look at horse tapes and think, nope, not that one. Until I saw Gully.

On the tape he was in an indoor, under Western tack. He'd had exactly six weeks' work under saddle, and then his owners, who lived in Alberta, had thrown him back into the field. He was three years old. He'd not been started over fences. He'd not been ridden English.

I loved him instantly. Couldn't tell you why. Which was when I had to fess up to my husband--oh, by the way, I've been looking at sale horses and I found one I want, and he's so far away that going to try him doesn't seem feasible, and also I'm not sure how much sense it would make since he knows very little, and I want him. He's my event horse. He's perfect for me.

You can see how much my husband loves me.

When I told my soon-to-be-neighbor and already good friend that I planned to buy a horse I'd have to board a least a year while we finished the house, she said, "Think about this. Light fixtures--or horse?"

"Horse," I said.

She frowned. "LIBRARY BOOKSHELVES--or horse?"

I flinched, but said, "horse."

"Wow," she said, "I clearly don't understand this horse shit at all."

Years later, when I was training with some of the top women in eventing, they'd ask how I came to find my wonderful horse. Their response when I told them was always the same: a look of total incredulity, a shake of the head, and a "wow, were you lucky."

I was so lucky.
I loved him so.

He loved cross country. He loved to jump. He was honest and brave, crackingly smart, oh so good.

Seven years ago I retired him due to a mysterious persistent lameness. We thought it was navicular, but it wasn't, because after two and a half years of turnout he became once again entirely sound. (There's a bit more to the story, but not much, and no clear answers.) I was competing my new mare Sarah then, and didn't have time to keep two horses going,. My daughter had her fabulous Mick. Gully wanted a job, and my young friend Caroline needed a horse to ride. I thought they might be a match. They were.

The very first time Caroline rode Gully, out in our seven-acre field, he tripped on something, fell to his knees, and tossed her. (I don't think it could have been the only time she came off him, but I can't recall another.) Later, in the barn, Caroline said, "Afterward he wouldn't stop apologizing. He kept saying, 'I'm so sorry!' and I kept saying, 'Buddy, it's alright!' He'd say, 'I didn't mean it!' and I'd be like, 'Accidents happen, I understand!'

My daughter stared at her. "He TALKS to you?"

Caroline looked embarrassed, but held her ground. "I mean, um, yeah--he was totally talking to me. I mean, I could understand everything he had to say."

My daughter said, "Because that horse only ever talks to my mother."

Which up until then had been true. Gully only ever loved me, until he met Caroline. Then he loved us both. He carried her for three years without ever a cross-country fault. They were fifth in our region in the year-end standings a year ago, when age caught up with him and we retired him once again.

For the past two months he'd been ill, and lame, and then better, and then not, and then the problem looked fixable, and then even though it should have been getting better it wasn't. Gully was cheerful in his stall, eating, happy to see me, but putting less and less weight on one leg. My vet needed to take an xray but her machine was broken; on Monday, as soon as it was fixed, she came out to the farm.

I was two states away. I could hear the dread in her voice when I picked up the phone. No way to save him. No choice.

My husband offered to drive us back immediately but it would have taken at least eight hours. I called Caroline. "I'll be there," she said. "I'm going there right now. I am on my way."

Any gift I ever gave her, letting her ride my lovely boy, was more than repaid in that moment. Caroline showed up with a whole bag of his favorite cookies. She Facetimed me and my daughter at college to let us say goodbye. Gully was surrounded by love through the end.

Every night I dream of Gully. All the dreams are good.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Where the Magic Happens

I'm in Pasadena, California, for the day. I flew here yesterday, leaving on the 6 am flight out of Bristol, landing in Burbank late morning. This afternoon I'll be pleased to receive the California Young Readers Medal for The War That Saved My Life at the California Library Association conference's Rose Tea. Tomorrow I'll fly home, arriving there at midnight. It's a peculiar sort of trip because it's a lot of flying for only one thing--no other events tied to it. The time change didn't help--you could either say I woke up at 4 am yesterday, and went to bed slightly before midnight, Eastern time, or you could say I crashed at 9 pm last night, Pacific time, but woke up at 1 am the same day. Either way I slept as long as I could and was wide awake in my hotel room at 6 am local time. By 7:15 I was in the only open nearby coffee shop, where the three white customers in residence, including me, all had fresh shower-slicked hair, and all the customers, including the two black ones, were hunched over cups of coffee, reading books. I felt very at home.

I read two books on the flight here, both for review, and after coffee and superb avocado toast I came back to my hotel room, where I am now, and wrote both reviews. There's not much else to do in Pasadena on Saturday before 8 am. I suppose there's probably a farmer's market somewhere, but I can't haul a bunch of fresh veg with me on tomorrow's flight home. At breakfast I was reading the book I picked up yesterday, at Vroman's, a wonderful independent bookstore here in Pasadena: The Body, by Bill Bryson. I like Bill Bryson always, but I think this topic is uniquely suited to his wry, gentle writing. " is surely astounding to reflect that not once in the three billion years since life began has your personal line of descent been broken. For you to be here now, every one of your ancestors had to successfully pass on its genetic material to a new generation before being snuffed out or otherwise sidetracked from the procreative process."

Last night I had dinner with Christine and Amy, two teachers here in Pasadena. Christine picked me up at the hotel; when I got in her car, she said, "Do you often get into cars with total strangers?" I replied, "Only if I've met them on the internet."

Christine was the first teacher who ever wrote me about The War That Saved My Life, the actual week of its publication. We've been Facebook friends ever since. Usually when I go to conferences I have busier schedules, and know lots of other people there. But this isn't a school library conference and there are almost no other kid-lit authors here. Nor do I know many people in Pasadena. But I did know Christine, virtually at least. She was bold enough to want to spend time with me, and I was bold enough to want to spend time with her. As such, and with the addition of her friend Ann, we had a really lovely evening, and now I have two new real-world friends.

Despite my chattiness I am not at all an extrovert, and sometimes it feels foreign to me to go out and look for company and friends. I find, though, that when I do I am always glad. Realistically a seventh-grade English teacher in Pasadena is not likely to be an axe-murderer, no matter what she says. The biggest risks to last night were that Christine and I might find each other boring, or offensive, or I'd hate the restaurant she chose, and those were actually pretty small risks compared to the chances of having a very nice time in good company, which I did.

Slightly outside my comfort zone: it's where the magic happens, every time.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

In Which I Go To the Farmer's Market, At Last

Early this year, or perhaps late last year, because that's the kind of planners we are, my husband and I looked at our 2019 calendar and blocked time off expressly and only for staying in our mountain house.

We've had a second home on the high slopes of Grandfather Mountain for some 13 years now--incredible, but true--but especially in the past few years have not been very intentional about spending time here. It's only a 75-minute drive from our home in Bristol, so we tend to think we can just be spontaneous, when the truth is we rarely end up with time in which to be spontaneous in. I plan as far in advance as I do because otherwise I end up never fitting in the most important stuff. So this year we blocked a week in July, a long weekend over Labor Day, and a week in October.

What I didn't block is time away from my own work. Until this year, especially when my children were small, I tended to work very part-time in the summer. I slacked way off. It was fabulous.

This year rolled around a little differently. I finished the fifth draft of Fighting Words on June 26th. (That was its deadline.) Then, even though I knew the book was being "launched" by marketing, and I knew it wasn't quite done, I felt so happy about the draft that I threw caution to the winds. I accepted a short story assignment and several book reviews, and made ambitious plans to write some crazy grant applications for my nonprofit, Appalachian Literacy Initiative. Then my editor assigned the sixth draft due August fifth. Along with all the other stuff.

I had a little bit of vacation that week in July, but I worked a lot more than I usually do, and when I wasn't working I was fretting or thinking or planning. I wasn't a whole lot of fun. Still, I made all my deadlines, and I was happy, really happy, about the work I'd done. The short story was fun, the grant applications completed, and the sixth draft was much improved. Which, quite frankly, it needed to be.

So there. Big breath, done. Right?

Wrong. On August 12th my editor told me that the seventh draft would be due September 3rd, also known as the Tuesday after Labor Day Weekend. I pointed out that, haha, that was a perfectly ridiculous deadline, especially as I would be overseas over 8 of those 21 days. She replied, haha, look at you traveling, have fun and also get the seventh draft done by September 3rd. We want ARCs by NCTE.

ARCs are Advanced Review Copies and NCTE is the National Council of Teachers of English conference, at which I'm speaking. So phew. It was insanity with a higher calling.

I had been speaking to my husband lovingly about my plans to go to the Watuaga County Farmer's Market, in Boone, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, while he golfed, but when we woke up that Saturday I shook my head. I was going upstairs, to my writing desk. No farther. He said, "But you love the farmer's market." I said, "I love meeting my deadlines, too, and trust me, I can't have both."

I worked my tail off and made it. Draft seven-and-a-half was due September 16th. Then there was some back and forthing about a few specific scenes, and then the book flew through copyediting in two days, I kid you not, and I corrected the copyedits in between sessions at another conference, and all of a sudden, here we were, a week in Linville in October and me with no deadlines at all.

We drove over after Bart got off work Friday evening. We had a lovely dinner with friends. We slept deeply. Saturday morning I dropped my husband off at the golf course and headed to the farmer's market.

We hadn't stopped at the grocery yet, and there wasn't much to eat in the house. We were even out of cereal. My husband spread peanut butter on some crackers, but the cracker box had been open all summer and the crackers were so stale they folded. He found some very old yogurt in the fridge. I ate nothing. I was waiting for the biscuit truck.

I have a method regarding the Boone Market. I walk the entire length of it before I buy anything. At the near end, at the biscuit truck, I buy a loaded (that is, with cheddar cheese baked in) biscuit with egg and bacon. They fold the wrap so that I can eat it while I stroll through the market. I admire everything. At the far end is the coffee truck. I drop my biscuit wrapper in the trash can and get coffee. (Saturday, when I got in line, a young woman in front of me grimaced and said, "They're already out of nitro brew.")

I sip the coffee and start to shop. Enchilada sauce--I try some on a chip, and it's got a stronger bite than the stuff from the grocery. Into my bag. Some new potatoes and sweet potatoes--just a few of each. Then turnips, zucchini. The jalapeno pimento goat cheese I always, always buy. A whole bag of heirloom tomatoes. The hot weather lately has been annoying but at least we still have tomatoes.

To my surprise, a few late ears of sweet corn. Some peppers so bright and lovely I want to paint them. Then at a stall selling fall-themed wreaths I fall in love with a door swag--evergreen shot through with small berries of orange and purple, and tweezles. It's gorgeous. I can't carry it back to the car along with all the other vegetables so I ask the woman who made it to put it to one side for me. I'll be back.

I head to the car. On the way I get a bunch of flowers--dahlias and sunflowers and basil as greenery. They're lovely. And some apples--a small bag, of mixed oddball varieties.

As I'm walking back to the market, having unloaded my vegetables, I'm stopped by a polite young man with oddly expressive eyebrows. He's holding a clipboard. "Friend," he says, "are you registered to vote?"

"Yes," I said, "and I intend to do so." He smiles

I'm wearing a sweatshirt with a deep pocket. At the beginning of the morning I'd taken some twenties out of my wallet and stuffed them into the pocket. I keep paying for things from the money in my pocket and stuffing the change back in--I'm not really keeping an accounting. I go back for the swag (later I hang it on my front door. It's gorgeous) and some lettuce and a small bag of basil. Then, because my life is so ridiculously privileged, because I have just gone through the farmer's market buying every lovely thing to eat, I stop at the desk near the biscuit truck. The Avery County Food Pantry collects donations every week, and uses the money to buy fresh vegetables for their own shelves. I empty the contents of my pocket into the jar. I'm not sure how much it is. I don't stop to count.

It is a glorious day.

Monday, August 12, 2019

What Happened This Summer

What happened this summer mostly seems not to have been about me.

I don't mean I didn't do things. I did an awful lot of things. I finished a draft of FIGHTING WORDS in June and another--the sixth--this week. That feels something like a miracle. (How close are we to finished? I don't know.) (I hope I find out soon.)

But a lot of what happened to me this summer happened also to other people. Our stories are intertwined. There's no way of telling my part without also telling theirs, and I don't have the right to do so. I sometimes have the obligation to not do so. As an example--I loved spending several days with all five of my lively nephews. But, even though I've protected their privacy by always referring to them by pseudonyms on this blog, I still can't tell you about our adventures without saying things they might prefer I didn't. And even though they might not care right now, they might care someday. Their childhoods are not blog fodder, any more than my children's were. (When I say something about my children on this blog, it's with their permission. They always have veto power, for any reason.)

I could write about grief, and joy, but it wouldn't be mostly my grief or my joy.

That's not why I didn't blog all summer. I mostly didn't because of the two drafts of FIGHTING WORDS--this is the hardest I've ever worked over a summer--and because I was busy learning some things for ALI. But many times when I thought, oh, that's a great story, and started thinking out how to tell it in my head, I would realize it wasn't a blog story, and leave it alone.

Here's a small story I can tell, from yesterday.

My daughter acquired a horse this summer. That's a long story, and not a blog one, but suffice to say he's a lovely kind large animal of indeterminate age and breeding and a fairly traumatic past, with very little in the way of actual knowledge, and our goal, my daughter's and mine, is to never scare or hurt him. My daughter's out of town right now, and the horse--his name is Merlin--likes to do things, so yesterday I took him out on a rope--which is to say, in a rope halter and a lead, not under saddle--to our 7-acre field. We have 3 tires jumps out there. Think Oreos stacked sideways only tires. My daughter'd ridden Merlin over the smallest one, but he was a bit anxious and didn't seem to understand it the way he understood jumping a log. So I worked him over it on the rope--he was still puzzled, but figuring it out. We jumped it all four ways (both directions, off both reins) and I praised him and rubbed his face. Then we moved on to the second tire jump. He jumped it back and forth. I praised him and rubbed his face.

We moved to the third tire jump, which is narrower and on a bit of a slope. I told Merlin to start walking around me in a circle, preparatory to aiming him at the tires.

He stood still beside me.

I told him again, more clearly. He took a step closer to me.

I told him again.

He said no.

I knew he understood me--basic rope work is something he gets--so I stood still, and stared at him, and asked him what was wrong.

He said, this just keeps getting harder. You keep making it harder.

I realized, from his point of view, jumping the tires was a LOT. I was asking him for too much, too fast. 'Sorry, dude,' I said. We walked back to the first tires, the easiest ones. He jumped them once and we walked back in. And he was happy, and so was I.

Now. I've been working a lot this summer preparing for Appalachian Literacy Initiative and the new school year. I've learned about fundraising and grant writing, and I've figured out how to put our entire story into a coherent narrative, backed by research. Essentially, it's this: access to books is the number one driver of student success, yet 61% percent of low-income kids don't own any books at all. Many low-income families lack access through libraries as well. The best thing we can do to help kids succeed is give them books, and we're doing it. ALI is currently enrolling fourth-grade classrooms in our program for the 2019-2020 school year. THE DEADLINE IS THURSDAY. Please help spread the word, so we can get as many books to as many children as possible. The application is on our website at

The test scores for the classrooms we served last year won't be released until October, but I've heard anecdotally from two of our schools. Both showed large gains in reading. One school went from 23% of fourth graders reading on grade level to an astonishing 96%. Of course that's not all ALI--we're not claiming that--but, as the number one predictor of whether a child will graduate from high school is whether they can read at grade level by the end of fourth grade--wow, a whole bunch of kids' futures suddenly look much brighter. We are so happy for their success

Monday, May 13, 2019

Standing in Ada's Shoes

It's Monday morning. Eight am. I'm home now, sitting at my very messy desk, drinking coffee from my favorite mug. Yesterday I spent on an airplane, pretty much. The day before that--Saturday--I had one of the most amazing and loveliest experiences of my author life.

We were in County Durham, which is the far northeast of England, for the final day of our trip. We went there simply because it was a part of England we'd never explored before, and it was pretty close to other places we knew we wanted to be. It was a sort of extra day. My husband looked the area up online and saw that they had a 300-acre living history museum called Beamish. I love living history museums. I warned him that I would want to see the Whole Thing, and we did.

They had an 1820s era village, complete with church, working farm, and one of the earliest versions of a steam railway. (The engine we saw running was an exact replica of one they still have, but don't run, from 1813). They had a 1900s town, and also, separately, a 1900s pit village with an open drift mine and a working steam winding engine from 1855, one of the last of its kind still functional. The colliery was fascinating; a man there gave us a detailed and fascinating demonstration of the enormous steam engine in action. I learned a lot in that area.

They had a 1940-era working farm. Like the main house in the 1820s area, and the drift mine, the buildings were original to the site, and dated back a few hundred years, but it this case they were furnished and set up as though the inhabitants were living in 1940, during World War II, on the English home front.

It was Ada's world.

It was Lady Thorton's gamekeeper's cottage, and the Elliston's farm. A perfect combination. One of the two houses really had been a gamekeeper's cottage. The other really had been the home farmhouse on an estate farm. The front door of the farmhouse opened directly into a large room, with a sofa and chairs clustered around a coal fire on one side, a large table on the other, and a kitchen just beyond. Upstairs in the gamekeeper's cottage, one bedroom was larger than the one Ada and Maggie shared, but oh so familiar--two painted iron bedsteads, a wardrobe, a rug on the wood floor. I went to the window, pushed aside the lace curtain-the blackouts were down--and there, as I live and breathe, was Mrs. Rochester.

They had a square wood pen in the back garden. Inside the pen was an enormous black and white sow. Mrs. Rochester--the pig from TWIFW.

I nearly couldn't believe it, but it got better. We went out the back door, by the kitchen--and there was the Anderson shelter. Covered in dirt, as it would have been, with Jamie's hens roosting on top.

I lowered myself inside. I was wearing a sprig of lavender I'd been given earlier in the day. The Beamish Anderson shelter wasn't very damp--all Anderson shelters tended to be damp, as they were set three feet down into the ground--but it still smelled faintly of damp. I breathed in, and the smell of damp combined with the smell of lavender--which Susan hung inside the shelter in TWIFW, so the damp smell wasn't so triggering to Ada. I stood there smelling what Ada smelled, and for just a moment I felt her, viscerally as never before, the panic and the fear and her shining courage. I was physically standing in a world I created, inside my fictional character's head, only it was also entirely real.

I was so overwhelmed I had to sit and drink some Bovril to recover. (I am not making that up.) (They were selling hot Bovril.)

Anyway, it was--I'm at a loss for words, never a good thing in a writer. I want to say the coolest, the most amazing, but that's not quite what I mean.

It was holy.

Also? I totally nailed it.

Today is Ada's 90th birthday, and as you all know, because I've told you so many times, Parnassus Bookstore is having a 24-hour online fundraiser for my nonprofit, the Appalachian Literacy Initiative. You can order anything at all from Parnassus today, May 13th, using the code BOOKJOY, and ALI will get 10%. Pro tip: buy ALI a gift card--for every ten dollars you give, we'll actually get eleven!

Access to books is a social justice issue. The Appalachian Literacy Initiative puts books in children's hands.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Will you Buy a Book, for Yourself and Ada?

Ada turns ninety years old on Monday.

Ada Smith, the character of my heart, the prickly stubborn girl from The War That Saved My Life.

Ninety years old. She's still alive. Still thriving.

I've carried on and on about how I believe access to books is a social justice issue. It's simple. Children with access to books learn to read much better than children without. Children who read better do better in life. Poor kids lack access to books.

Give them books, and change the world.

That's why I created my nonprofit, Appalachian Literacy Initiative. We're putting books into children's hands. I'm super proud of what we're doing, and super pleased to be partnered with Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville. Not only does Parnassus get us books at a discount, they're running a fundraiser for us.

On May 13th ten percent of all online orders will go directly to ALI.

You can buy anything at all--any book you like. You can buy gift certificates or subscriptions to Parnassus's signed First Editions club. And you'll be helping a kid find joy in reading.

Buy a book in Ada's honor. Buy something you've been wanting to read, and help a child get a book they want to read, too.

And! This is really, really important: when you order online at, be sure to add the code BOOKJOY. That's how ALI gets credited.

And thank you.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Off to Cheer For the Game of Thrones Guy

Well, here I am, dusting off my passport. Tomorrow I leave for England and the Badminton Horse Trials. This is a bucket-list item for me. Last summer, when some friends from Scotland were visiting, we discovered that they'd always wanted to see Badminton too (by which I'm pretty sure I mean, Lesley always wanted to see Badminton, and Calum, like Bart, is willing to go along). So we made plans. Pretty soon they morphed into absolutely excellent plans, as we're staying at an Airbnb in Bath, a city I've always wanted to explore (hello, Jane Austen!) and afterwards heading up to Leeds so the boys can golf. Lesley got tickets for a history of clothing museum, something that's right up my alley, and we're planning to eat and drink spectacularly well.

It's nuts to do two amazing trips like this back-to-back, but that's how it worked out: the golf invitation had a certain time attached to it, and of course Badminton is always the first weekend in May.

OK. I'll back it up for the majority of you who don't know what the heck I'm talking about. Badminton is the grandmother of all three-day events, the biggest and hardest competition of my lovely esoteric sport. It takes place at Badminton, the estate of the Duke of Beaufort. From pretty much every measure it's the most difficult event in the world, this is its 70th year, and cross country day attracts something like 250,000 spectators, because in England the sport and this event are big deals. Badminton accepts entries based in part on how important you are--they run 89 pairs, and keep a ranked wait list. Last week the entries closed. One rider, Ingrid Klimke, dropped out, and another took her place, and now the field is set. There are exactly two Americans, neither of whom I know at all, which is odd because our sport is so small that I really do know a lot of the top American athletes. Tamra Smith is based in California, and Jenny Caras is currently based in England, and I've never met either of them. I wish them well, of course, but from a personal level I'll be rooting for Mark Todd, the King of All Eventing, and also for Jim Newsham, better know as the Game of Thrones guy.

I've read several of the Game of Thrones books but not watched one minute of the HBO series. However, last summer I found myself in a part of Northern Ireland where chunks of the series were filmed. My daughter met the man who directs the sword fighting, and got to see several of the named swords--she swung one around, which made the man nervous. (Understand that this wasn't some official GofT event. We happened to be walking around this ruin, and two guys happened to be practicing mock sword fighting. My daughter stopped to watch, and things progressed from there.) Anyway, the day after that, my husband went to golf, and my daughter and I went to ride. There was a stable in the town that offered two-hour rides through a lovely forest, only to adults who were competent riders.

Now, you need to understand something about the Irish. They lived under English oppression for so long that they're genetically compelled to take the wind out of anyone who tries to impress them. Tell an Irishman you can ride any horse at all, and he will set out to find one that you can't, even if you're paying him for the honor. Don't brag to Irishmen is a cardinal rule.

On the other hand, there are a lot of ignorant tourists in the world, who truly believe that because they once sat an ancient placid nag in a paddock they know how to ride. So it's a fine line, explaining that you really do know how to handle a horse without bragging on yourself. I usually let my well-worn paddock boots do the talking. Show up in gear that has seen a couple of years of use, and I look as though I know one end of a horse from the other.

So it was. We pulled up and parked in a small yard with a typical Irish set of stables--a low row of tin-roofed stone buildings cobbled together higgledy-piggledy. No apparent pastures--those turned out to be about a block away. A woman a bit older than me walked over, looked me up and down, sighed, and said, "You do ride, don't you?" I nodded. "I'll just get some other horses," she said.

"What's that?" asked my daughter, getting out of the car.
"We qualified for an upgrade," I said.

While the woman and her husband brushed off a different, presumably less nag-like, set of horses I had a peek inside the buildings. Several contained stalls with large, study cobs--exactly the sort of horses I'd expect to take on a two-hour hack through a forest. Then I stepped inside another building, and gasped. There was a prince among horses--a tall, gleaming, bay Irish Thoroughbred, well-muscled, excellent bone, up on his toes. Stunning. He was as like the other horses as a Ferrari is to my minivan.

We started off, the woman, my daughter, and I. Turns out that the horses the woman and my daughter were riding had both been used in Game of Thrones. The forest we rode through was used in a big chunk of filming, and the woman's son, she told us, was a stunt rider for the series.

My daughter told her that we were eventers. She smiled, and said her son was an eventer, too. "Rather a good one," she said. "He rode at Badminton last year."

So that was the gorgeous bay--a Badminton horse.

I told her that I was planning a trip to Badminton. "I hope some of my friends will compete," I said, "if not I'll cheer for your son."

"If he goes next year," she said. In horses nothing is certain.  It's bad form to pretend otherwise.

We went on to have a perfectly lovely ride. Like me the woman had been a pony club DC. She and my daughter traded pony club and eventing stories as we rode. (Eventing stories are like fishing stories, except that they're usually true. You can't make this sh*t up.)

Anyhow, her son is Jim Newsham. His lovely horse is Magennis. Join me in wishing them well.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

France. Golf. Notre Dame.

I'm home. I'm staring at my novel manuscript willing it to turn into something more cohesive. I'm listening to the robins in the budding trees outside. (The barn swallows are back! Our last marker of spring. I love the barn swallows so much. I always feel bereft when they leave in the fall.)

I was in France, and it was fantastic. I studied and studied the Chateau de Chenonceau, which will be the setting for an upcoming book. I bought a large stack of research books at Shakespeare and Company, the English-language bookstore on the left bank in Paris. Shakespeare and Company is British run, with primarily British books and a heavy emphasis on French history and culture. It was at Shakespeare and Company, two years ago, that I purchased the book that has saved us a whole bunch of money in France ever since: the one that taught me the magic words, "un carafe d'eau." You see, in France the restaurants don't just hand out drinking water. They ask you, usually in perfect English, whether you prefer plain or sparkling water. You can try to say, "plain plain," or "not in a bottle," or whatever else you like, but their English never extends far enough to understand. They bring you a sealed bottle of plain water and charge you six bucks for it. And you're thirsty, and there's nothing you can do. We've tried asking for jugs of water. Pitchers of water. Nope. Then I read the book. "Un carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait." It's wonderful. You get a container of plain water for which you are not charged. Sounds like a small thing, I admit, but those six dollar bottles add up.

Anyway. Clearly, I digress. On Friday, our only day actually spent in Paris, I required my husband to go immediately to Shakespeare and Company so I could bookshop, even though I knew I'd be buying more books than I would want to carry around all day, and even though we had dinner reservations at a restaurant a block away from the bookstore. We went to the left bank, bought books, returned them to our hotel, went out for more exploring, and then, later, went right back to the same part of the left bank for dinner. It would have been infinitely more efficient to buy books on the way to dinner, but it would have made me anxious. What if I didn't have browsing time enough? Thankfully, my husband knows who he married. He even helped carry the books.

Meanwhile, the day before, we had a glorious sun-soaked day--the first good weather day of our trip--on my husband's favorite golf course in the world, a little place not far outside Paris. My husband and son have played there a number of times, but this time I went along, because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and also because this particular trip was so important to him. He's had a lot of complications surrounding the knee replacement surgery he had in November. Recovery's been hard, and painful, and for months now his motivation and goal was to walk this golf course on this day in France. We played with a French doctor who's my husband's friend, a lovely man. Back when they were planning the day, Jacques offered to reserve a golf cart for my husband. (The course has a few, but people hardly ever use them.) My husband said, "You will not." He was going to walk the course, as he always does, as he loves to do, every hole. And he did.

It's a funny little gem, a gorgeous rural course, the very essence of golf without snobbery or upmanship. We were on the second or third hole when Jacques took a deep breath, smiled, and said, "My grandparents played here so I've been coming ever since I was a little boy. And still every time I'm here I feel blessed." At one point Jacques smacked a shot over a green onto another, where two French women gave him side-eye as he apologized profusely. When he came back I asked him if there were many woman members. He told me there always had been. "Everyone," he said, with emphasis, "has always been welcome here."

Sounds a little bit like heaven, doesn't it? Meanwhile the cathedral of Notre Dame held. I don't know how--the photographs, the night of the fire, were so awful--we were farther south then, not in Paris. I kept updating my internet feed but my husband got to the point where he could not long look. We are Catholic--sure, if you've read this blog, you know that--and have been to Mass at Notre Dame several times, the first on our honeymoon, most recently Easter Sunday two years ago. I love Notre Dame as a place of worship, but even more as a monument to human imagination, hope, and love. Nearly a thousand years ago hundreds of people set out to build one of the greatest structures of the age. They had to invent technology--they had to rethink architecture. And they knew, all of them, that the building would never be finished in their lifetimes. Craftsmen did the best work of which they were capable for a project they would not see complete. Over and over, for two hundred years. And it stands. Still.

Shakespeare and Company is right across the Seine from Notre Dame. Right now, immediately after the fire, it's about as close as you can get to the cathedral--the bridges and roads are closed all around. I took a photo of my husband on Friday morning, right after I bought all my books, with Notre Dame in the background--a big crane already set up in her forecourt, her roof and spire gone but all the buttresses and most of the stained glass still in place. The day before, on the golf course, my husband walked 28,000 steps. He's healing. Notre Dame will too.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Where Have I Been?


Yesterday, as I do most Thursdays, I met my husband for lunch. I sat down at the table across from him and said, "I remembered to take the trash down this morning!"

"Congratulations!" he said, with true, non-ironic sincerity. Then he said, "Wait, what day is it? Is it Thursday?"

(Please note that Thursday has been Trash Day and Lunch Date Day for at least the last 15 years.)

Then yesterday evening we went out to our front porch with glasses of wine. "Oh!" I said, grabbing my iPad to check, "I think one of my friends had a book birthday today. You know how new books always come out on Tuesdays."

"Kim," my husband said, "it's not Tuesday."

We're a little upside down, the both of us.

Half an hour ago I hit "Send" on the latest draft of my latest book, due today, so please note I'm a few hours early. I had to work like crazy to meet this deadline, and I'm really happy with the work I've done, and I've got lots more stuff coming up really quickly. Tomorrow I leave for Indiana and my final school visit of the year (I have family in Indiana I'll be visiting on Sunday), which will be Monday. Tuesday I fly back from Indiana. Wednesday I leave for France. That's a research trip. (Pro tip: so far as possible, arrange to do research in exotic locales.) In theory, I'll return to my editor's notes on the draft I just submitted, and, again in theory, I'll get another revision completed before May 1st--which is the day I leave for England.

Last week I was in Dallas for two days of school visits, which were lovely.

I had a very quiet winter. It seems like a long time ago.

Meanwhile, we are just about to order the last round of student books for the first year of Appalachian Literacy Initiative. It's gone so very well. In preparation for setting the list of books for next year's classes, I asked our enrolled teachers how well this year's books suited their students.

From St. Clair Elementary, Bulls Gap, TN: "I honestly loved the book selection. From a personal stand point I found the students were more interested in the less popular books. It seemed the books that are not advertised so highly at book fairs and things of that nature were more interesting to the students. It also opened up a chance to read books our library did not have."

From Ketron Elementary, Kingsport, TN: " I have a deaf student this year and El Deafo was especially relatable for him."

From Chamberlain Elementary, Charleston, WV: "Let me tell you what a wonderful experience this has been for my students and myself.  They have such pride in their books and they have read every single one of them.  They were so excited when they found out the books were theirs to keep in their own personal library.  The books ended up meetings the needs of my students, all of them, no matter what reading level they were on this year. 

Overall, the students liked all the titles and I was surprised of some of their choices when choosing a book.  My students really loved the graphic novels.  They even shared them among the group."

I know I talk a lot about ALI on this blog. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that I'm passion about increasing children's access to books. Another is that I'm very proud of our program. But a third, to be perfectly frank, is that we don't have quite enough in our bank account right now to pay for the last set of books. I'm confident we'll work it out. We've done pretty damn good so far. At our first board meeting I floated the idea of enrolling 20 classrooms in our first year, and I still remember the skeptical looks I got--I was really reaching. And then we got so many applications that in the end we accepted 28 classrooms, with absolutely no idea how we were going to fund our year. We hoped our 501(c)3 status would come through quickly enough that we would be eligible for some grants--it didn't. (We do have that status now, and are applying for anything we can find for next year). But hey--we've paid for 2566 gorgeous new books so far. It's been a wonderful year.

If you’d like to support the work that we’re doing, you can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here

Monday, March 11, 2019

Staying. For Now.

So. I've spent the week doing a lot of things--visiting my editor in New York City, watching my daughter fence at the NCAA Regionals, walking and reading and learning about all sorts of new things, as I do every time I travel. I've also spent a lot of time thinking about religion and my place in the Catholic church.

If I left, I'd join the Episcopal church. I've always loved it. One of my best friends, growing up, was the daughter of an Episcopal priest in my hometown (the friend is also herself now an Episcopal priest, as well as a nun--yes, Episcopals have nuns--and my daughter's godmother, and still one of my dearest friends). I'll never forget Sunday mornings with Sarah and her sisters in the front pew of her father's church. The Episcopal Mass is very nearly the same as the Catholic Mass, except for small differences in translation, probably made a hundred years ago. Sarah and I would be giddy with exhaustion, having once again stayed up all night long, and I'd be reciting prayers and responses on autopilot, from memory, when suddenly I'd say one word and the entire congregation would say another. It was like hitting a speed bump fast. I'd jerk my head up, then start again, mumble, mumble, mumble, BUMP. Sarah's little sisters would be beside themselves with glee. Mumble mumble BUMP.

I loved being part of that household. I love worshiping with Sarah now. Her order prays several times a day, and when I'm visiting her I join them. I was at Sarah's ordination, and participated in her very first Mass. So for me this wouldn't be much of a leap.

There's a lovely Episcopal church in Bristol. I have many friends among the congregation and even before I wrote my blog post last week they've made it clear they'd welcome me there. So last week, for the first time, I really started to consider changing churches.

It filled me with grief.

I can't articulate why. I'm not really even very worried about why. I am upset and unhappy with my Church, and I am letting myself be unhappy.

Then the next day was Ash Wednesday. One of my Episcopal friends in my yoga class quietly told me what time the services were at Emmanuel. But somehow I still wanted to be at St. Anne's.

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite religious days because it seems to really count for something. Catholics have all these holy days of obligation, only now some are obligated and some aren't---New Year's Day is a holy day of obligation unless it's too close to Sunday, or sometimes it is for one of my regular churches (diocese of Richmond) but not the other (diocese of Charlotte) which makes no sense, frankly. Catholics are all supposed to attend Mass on holy days of obligation. Ash Wednesday isn't one--but tons more people make the effort to get themselves to church. It feels important to do so.

So I went to Mass, the day after I wrote my angry blog post last week. I got to St. Anne's a titch late and the church was so full I had to sit in the choir loft. It felt like home, being there. It wasn't comfortable, but it felt like the place I should be.

I still have lots of things I want done differently in my Church. I'm still angry. I've been reading about what a lot of other Catholics have to say about this. One of my favorite columns is Steel Magnificat, over at A few days ago, the author, Mary Paluzzo, wrote a Lenten meditation on Christ as a victim of sexual abuse--not metaphorically, but actually. Actual Jesus sexually abused.

I found it powerful and good. Other readers were horrified. It's worth going back and looking at the original piece, and the comments, but what I want to share here is Mary's follow-up post. Why is it disturbing to think that Jesus may have been sexually abused? Because we're so used to blaming victims? Because we can't bear to talk about this problem?

The time has come to talk, of course. The perpetrators need to repent. The victims need to be heard. One of my friends asked me last week, did I think there would be a time when the Church needed to move on? Sure--and we are no where near that point. We have barely begun.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Catholics: Wanting Not Only the Truth but the Whole Truth, and Repentance

Yesterday the Catholic church made me angry. Today it's making me angry again. I'm trying to figure out exactly what I want to do about it. I've always thought that the best way to change an organization is to work within that organization. I'm not sure what kind of power, or responsibility, I have.

Yesterday it was the homily during Mass. (Bristol friends: I was at St. Bernadette's, near our mountain home in North Carolina. I have no idea what Fr. Chris said at St. Anne's. I'm not talking about anything he said or didn't say.) The priest,Fr. Gober, who I usually like, touched briefly--very briefly--on Catholic clergy who have committed sex crimes. He said something like bishops, even Cardinals, doing things that are immoral, even criminal, in nature--and then immediately segued into how other people are also sexually abusive, from all sorts of different religions, and also we as laypeople have to be sorry for our sins, too.

And I thought, for about the sixty-seventh time this year, they still don't get it. Priests don't get it. Bishops, Cardinals, the Pope--nope. Not getting it.

What if we discussed fidelity in marriage in that way.? "Honey, I know I was unfaithful, but lots of other people are unfaithful in their own marriages, too." Oddly enough, I don't think it would help. Nor would it help if your unfaithful spouse assured you that you also sometimes do bad things, like lose your temper or forget to take the garbage down.

Today I'm also angry because the pope just announced that, in a year, he's going to release documents about Pope Pius XII and his role in World War II. Now, why would I be angry about that? There's long been speculation about which side Pius really supported during the war. Did he appear to go along with the Nazis in some things because he was pro-Nazi, or a wimp, or as a smokescreen to hide acts of espionage? There has always been limited evidence on both sides. I've always wondered about this myself, since I'm interested in history. I saw an exhibit about Pope Pius XII at Yad Vasem, the holocaust museum in Israel, when I was there last year, and even it said the evidence was murky and inconclusive.

So why am I angry that the current pope is releasing documents about Pius? Because it means that the Church has had documents that they've been hiding for years. The Church--the official church, the men who run the Vatican--has known the truth all along. It feels exactly like the abuse cases. Secret files and cover-ups.

I'm still working out exactly what I need from my church for me to stay a member. It breaks my heart, but right now I'm not sure I can remain. So. For starters: I want to be told the truth. I don't want excuses. I want repentance--from Fr. Gober at St. Bernadette's, from Fr. Chris at St. Anne's, from every single priest still under Holy Orders. Real, spoken-from-the-pulpit, "Priests hurt children and were protected by a conspiracy of lies and coverups. As priests we bear part of the blame because we did not fight against this silence, this omission of truth. We are deeply sorry."  That's a starting point for what I want.

I don't believe either Fr. Gober or Fr. Chris have sexually abused children. But they are part of an institution that did, for years, and then lied about it, to their own people, for years. They bear clerical responsibility. I hope they come to understand that. I hope they apologize.

I'm not holding my breath. Like every other Catholic layperson, I've learned not to.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Why ALI?

I'm hanging out at my computer with my dog on my lap. She's gotten to where she pretty much overlaps my lap, but there are men on my roof tearing off all the shingles and the only way the dog can cope with the disturbance is to cleave tightly to me. So we're making it work.

I just got a phone call from my family nurse practitioner. She said, "Did you know that you're famous, like the President?"

I did not know that (nor have I, to my knowledge at least, previously been compared to Mr. Trump) but I did dream last night that I was shaking all the presidents' hands, starting with Reagan and G.H.W. Bush.

"Were you in heaven?" my husband inquired, when I told him about it this morning.

"No," I said, "I was at a Notre Dame football game."

Of course, in our house, that's pretty much the same thing.

I'm famous like the President according to my family nurse practitioner's young daughter, who is desperate to get some of my books signed by me, so what time will today's book signing run to?

It's from four until six, at Blackbird Bakery in downtown Bristol. I'll speak briefly at four, but will absolutely stay until at least six to sell books and sign them and chat with anyone kind enough to stop by. We're also selling cookies. Blackbird is stuffed with pastry goodness, as everyone in Bristol full well knows, but they did a special run of iced sugar cookies for us to sell in benefit of Appalachian Literacy Initiative, the reason for the whole shebang and my heart's most fervent cause.

I was just now, before the phone call but after the dog, looking through the notes I made for the speech that really sparked ALI. It was in fall 2016, and I gave a presentation at the Tennessee Association of State Librarians on the importance of diversity in children's books. I started off with racial diversity, and then spoke on economic diversity in literature, which I thought then and still believe to be another important issue. In Tennessee one-third of the schoolchildren live in families that get SNAP benefits (often called food stamps), but you almost never see SNAP benefits mentioned in fiction. If they are, it's that the family is too proud to accept them, or used to get them back when times were really bad. No one ever gets them now. That has always annoyed me, so I did some research, and then I went straight beyond annoyance into incredulity, and then to a sort of social justice awakening.

If you've read this far and you really want to know where I get my information, I'll refer you to Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp's new book, Game Changer, which gathers all the research into one easy-to-find and read volume. Essentially it's this: the ability to read fluently is the bedrock to academic success. The ability is read fluently depends upon access to books. For a variety of reasons, children from low-income families have much less access to books than their higher-income counterparts.

Children from low-income families are 250% less likely to read fluently then their classmates from higher-income families. Poverty is the single greatest predictor of academic failure.

Access to books is a social justice issue.

I came away from that conference pleased by the success of the presentation but greatly troubled by the results of my own investigation. Over half the schoolchildren in Appalachia get free or reduced-price school lunch. Many of the schools themselves are poor beyond middle-class imagination. Many of these children don't have a single book in their homes, have never once had a single book to call their own.

Here in my office, my dog and I are surrounded by a couple of hundred books. There are more in every single room in my house. The laundry room has a bookshelf. I'm not kidding. It's full.

My friend Tracy Griffith, who has a farm deep in an old coal community, was equally troubled by the injustice of this. We met over and over, usually at Blackbird Bakery, to figure out what we wanted to do. Eventually we found our format: enroll classrooms in Appalachia. Let all the students choose books. Good, new, shiny-bright books. Fiction and non-fiction, graphic novels, funny novels, stories about dogs and gorillas and injustice. Trust the students to pick the books they needed. Let them keep the books forever, read them over and over until the shiny covers tore and dulled.

We've given away 2398 books this school year so far. Diary of a Wimpy Kid was pretty popular--151 copies--and so was Captain Underpants (101), but not as much as The One and Only Ivan (183) or Because of Winn-Dixie (178).

Those kids who ordered Because of Winn-Dixie are going to get a surprise. The books are in transit now--and the author, Kate DiCamillo, has signed bookplates to put in every single one. Authors are amazing. We've had support from so many: Kate and Katherine Applegate and Laura Amy Schlitz just to name Newbery winners. Publishers have given us free books. Our corporate partner, Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville, gives us steep discounts and accepts donations on our behalf. We JUST GOT our official 501(c)3 status (!!!!! retroactive to February 2018, so everyones' gifts were tax deductible) so we will be able to start applying for grants now, but for this year a whole lot of community members and friends, including every single one of our seven-woman board, has been incredibly generous with private donations, which was so amazing, especially since, at the beginning of this year, I made promises to schoolchildren I didn't have the funds to keep.

Anyway, I'm going on again, because I love this non-profit so much. I love giving books. I believe that what we're doing is important. I think we can change the world. Someone's world, at any rate. One child at a time.

Appalachian Literacy Initiative. We put books in children's hands.

So, if you get a chance, head down to Blackbird this afternoon. You don't have to buy anything. Just come say hi. If you can't make it but want to support ALI there are a bunch of other ways. Think of us fondly, at any rate. Think of a book you read when you were ten that opened your eyes and heart. Then find a way to give that book to a child.

If you’d like to support the work that we’re doing, you can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Hill That I'm Willing to Die On

One of the things I've learned well this past year is how many stories aren't mine to tell. I had a great blog post half-written in my head, but realized it had the possibility of making one person--only one--of my acquaintance feel unhappy. Not mortally-wounded-never-talk-to-you-unhappy, but still possibly unhappy to a degree, and although I have no way of knowing whether or not that person has ever once read my blog, it wasn't worth the story.

Not that I mind pissing people off. But I mind meanness, or humor at someone else's expense. I mind sharing private stories that aren't entirely mine. (Lately people tell me things. All sorts of people. All sorts of things. I'm honored by their trust. Won't break it.)

It does all go into my vast mental Rolodex--I guess we need to update that image, let's try vast mental database--of How People Can Be. As a writer I'm always looking to add to this database. It's why I listen to Dr. Laura in the car, when I'm not working on my French.

Anyway between reticence and my new novel I haven't been blogging much. I'm going to work on that because I do have a lot I want to say. But I've been saying it--saying all my truth--in this new novel I'm working on. I realized that on Friday at yoga. I'd given the manuscript to a professor of counseling and psychology at a local college for professional review of some of the content. Said professor also happens to frequent the same yoga classes I do, so she'd brought the manuscript back with her feedback. We talked for awhile, and I found myself saying how important the book was to me. I put my hand on the manuscript and said, "This is a hill I'm willing to die on."

I thought about that again this morning, as I was loading books into the trunk of my car. I don't usually sell my own books, but I am tomorrow, at a fundraiser for my nonprofit, the Appalachian Literacy Initiative. (Blackbird Bakery in Bristol, 4-6pm, everyone welcome, please come). If you look at my writing career it's 17 books, the last 2 being bestsellers. But I know that the success of the last two comes actually from the work I put into the book before that, Jefferson's Sons. Jefferson's Sons was a turning point for me. It took me four years to write it well, but I was determined, above all else, that it be written well. To me that story was too big for mediocrity. It was, in fact, a hill I was willing to die on.

Then came Ada Smith, crippled, ignorant, furious---and my editor's famous comment when she read an early draft: "This isn't really your next book, is it?"

Ouch. But Ada's story was also a hill I was willing to die on. Both parts. That turned out to be good, because I needed every ounce of my stubbornness to persevere through the nine drafts of The War I Finally Won.

Now I'm deep in this new novel--untitled, still, we call it the Della book--and in revisions for the Egypt book. I'm reading and preparing for the book after that, which doesn't have a lot of form yet but which does feature Nazi soldiers and a really awesome ghost. I think after all these books I've finally found my secret: I need to write things I will lay myself down for. I need to write from the top of the hill I am willing to die on.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A Shout Out to the Bristol Public Library

I love my library so much.

When we first visited Bristol for my husband's job interview nearly 22 years ago, I asked about the public library. To my concern, the doctor with whom my husband was interviewing and his wife exchanged concerned glances. "It's up the road," they said, not volunteering to take me there, and of course I became even more concerned. I didn't need to be. As soon as we got a free moment we found the library, because I can not live where there isn't a decent library, and it was fine. It was small, and antiquated, and the stacks were dark and cold, but it had quite a lively selection of books for a town of this size and was clearly making the best of limited space. The staff, too, were fantastic. Still are. (Though I wish they didn't all recognize me. "I loved TWTSML," one of them said as I was checking out, not long ago. "What are you working on now? Oh, and your fines are up to seventeen dollars and forty five cents.")

Several years ago the library totally outgrew that old building. A lively civic debate followed about where to move it to--it had to be on the Virginia side of town, because of better public funding there (there's a branch in Tennessee); it had to still be downtown, near the shelters, because so many homeless people use the services there. Finally the best solution was simply to tear down the old single-story building and build a new two-store one in its place.

I'm there all the time. The Appalachian Literacy Initiative, my nonprofit, holds its board meetings in the large conference room upstairs. (We used to meet in the small downstairs conference room, but we're loud, and we were annoying one of the regular patrons, who's autistic and often uses the computers near the downstairs room.) I get books by the bagful. I shop at the gift shop (where else can you get cheap romance novels for fifty cents?) I've fallen sound asleep in the comfy chairs in the reading area, and the parrot in the children's department, Citrus, recognizes me and rings her bell when she sees me so I'll give her a treat.

Yesterday I went to peruse the audio/visual department. I'm heading to France in April to do research on a book I just can't wait to write--it's been bubbling inside me for two years--and I'm determined not to show up at the chateau that will be my setting as a typical monoglot American asshat. I had 3 1/2 years of French, in high school, centuries ago, but by golly in April I will speak their language at least a little bit without sounding like a fool.

Years ago, prior to another trip, I'd bought myself a set of 6 "learn French" CDs to play in the car. They're not wholly useless, but they're limited. I never understand some of the decision making that goes into these things. In the unit on "What I like to do" the choices are jogging, (in French that's "jogging"), taking a walk, or wind-surfing. I guarantee you that never in my life will I need to ask the French where I can do a spot of wind-surfing. My wind-surfing days, if I ever had any, are gone.

But anyhow, the time I spend running errands can certainly be usefully employed listening to French, so off I popped to the library, where I found another set of 10 CDs, a different company. Very excellent. That's when I saw, tucked behind the a/v department, our library's new adult learning center. Which includes a 3-D printer and lots of craft supplies. Mmmm. It wasn't open yet (I mean, that morning, I was there early) but I can't wait to go explore. I really want to play with a 3-D printer.

But then, because I was checking out language tapes, the helpful front desk clerk handed me a brochure. Well, heckfire. Turns out there are online language-learning resources available to library patrons. Turns out there's one program available to Tennessee residents, and another to Virginia residents, and as a patron of the Bristol Public Library I count as both.

Oeeee, howdy, these things are the bomb. Both are multifacted--you hear, read, write, and speak. Turns out my work computer, the same machine I'm typing on now, has a built in microphone, and it turns out that some of my basic pronunciation is lousy. Turns out I don't know how to correctly pronounce vous. Which is the formal or plural form of the word you and one of the more basic words in the entire language. The Tennessee program keeps asking you to say the same word over and over until you get it right, so I've just spent half an hour saying, vous. Vous. vous vous vous VOUS Vous! 

Turns out you have to imagine that the s is there even though you don't pronounce it. Kind of like how in Hamilton, there's a line, "Have you read thish?" where you're pretty sure they threw an h onto the word this, you can't quite be sure, but it makes you think they're saying "this shit" even though they absolutely never say the word "shit."

It's a little weird. I mean, clearly the s is actually on the end of the word vous. But it's a silent s. But not entirely. You have to pretend to say it without actually saying it. In the same way, s'il vous plait, which means please, is pronounced almost as though the first l is actually there, but not quite. I'd been dropping it entirely, which makes my computer beep at me and tell me to try again.

I'm also realizing how spotty my vocabulary is. I've known the word for cabbage, chou, forever, but only yesterday encountered laitue, lettuce. I'm struggling over beurre de cacahuetes which means peanut butter.

My husband walked in while I was muttering beurre de cacahuetes to my screen. He asked what it meant (he's had more French than I have, and didn't know either). "Do the French eat peanut butter?" he asked.

"Not to my knowledge," I said. For sure I'm not eating peanut butter within the borders of France. But, by golly, I'll know how to say it when I'm there.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Some of My Friends Got Phone Calls This Morning!

Phew, I just finished watching the web broadcast of the ALA Youth Media Awards. I didn't have a book published this year, which took away any stress about stickers and made watching a pleasure. Plus I'm so pleased for the winners. Some I haven't read yet--I'll be making a bookstore order as soon as I finish this post--and some are books I simply loved.

A Stonewall Award for Julian Is a Mermaid, one of my favorite picture books ever.

A Coretta Scott King author honor for Lesa Cline-Ransome, for Finding Langston, which I was privileged to review for the New York Times, and wholeheartedly loved.

A Printz Honor for Damsel, which was my personal favorite of all the YA I read last year, because it is so everloving fierce, the antidote to every princess fairy tale--and written by Elana K. Arnold, a friend!

A Legacy award for Walter Dean Myers--I only wish he were alive to receive it in person.

Such lovely Caldecott Honors, and then another win for Sophie Blackall, who also won 3 years ago and has been a friend since the night of the banquet.

The Newbery itself for Meg Medina. I haven't read Merci Suarez yet but I've loved everything Meg has ever written.

Newbery Honors for the Book of Boy, which I don't know but which has been recommended by several friends, and The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani, which I have loved since forever. It's Veera's debut, and it's amazing.

I'll tell the story, which I may have told before. Namrata Tripathi, an editor for Dial who now has her own imprint, Kokila, and who I've known and worked with and very much liked for a long time, asked me, just as I was heading out on a two-week book tour, if I'd consider blurbing this debut novel she was working on. From just about anyone else in the world, I would have said I didn't have the spoons to even consider it. I was busy; I was stressed. But it was Nami who asked, so I said maybe, and then Nami sent it to me electronically. I don't like reading books electronically, especially galleys, so I thought, well, maybe can certainly turn into no, and didn't worry about it.

But then I was in the middle of this tour, and I was on a plane seated in the bulkhead, where you can't have any bags by your feet--everything had to be in the overhead bins for takeoff. We were delayed on the ground, and I was sulking, tired, grouchy. All I had was my phone. I took it out and started reading the story Nami'd sent, because I don't have Kindle on my phone so it was actually my only option, and I was even more grouchy because I really hate reading on my phone's tiny screen.

I put my head against the side of the airplane, shielding the screen from the sun, and mentally longed for the plane to take off so I could get my real book down from the overhead bin. Meanwhile I begrudgingly started The Night Diary.

The next thing I knew was the bump of the plane touching down. We'd not only taken off, we'd flown two hours and landed. And now I was even grumpier, because I had to get off the plane, and I hadn't finished the story yet. I tend to get enmeshed in books but rarely do I get so entirely absorbed.

Three years ago--three years and 17 days, it was the 11th of January--I got a phone call on the morning of ALA Youth Media Day. It was fantastic. Today I woke up wondering whose phone was ringing with good news.

Congratulations to everyone. I hear Elana's buying the falafel. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Government Shutdown Harms Babies

For those of you (both of you) wondering Where in the Sam Hill I have Been, the answer is, wallowing under my deadline. Which is Monday.

I'm working hard, and well, and blog posts haven't been a priority. So far for January my priorities have been 1) trying to help my husband through his surgery 2) my manuscript 3) everything else.

I'm starting to put pieces of what I consider my normal life back into the picture. Tuesday I rode my horse. Wednesday I went to both yoga and my shift at Faith in Action. Today I'm writing this blog post. Go me.

We're in day thirty-something of the federal government shutdown, which as far as I can see is just a pissing match with no clear benefit to anyone. So far, to me personally, it's been annoying because I had reason to believe I was on the verge of my nonprofit getting 501(c)3 status right before the shutdown, and because I haven't been able to get some tax forms I need. (The IRS mails them out, instead of allowing them to be downloaded. Whose dumb idea is this?) These are trivial issues. Most of senators and Congressional representatives seem to feel that missing a few paychecks is also trivial, to the eight hundred thousand or so federal employees, many of whom are still working, just not getting paid. It's a nice life when you can imagine that a month without income doesn't mess people up, but it's not a real one. We need some real-world governance around here.

Meanwhile, yesterday I saw an example of the shutdown hurting some of the most vulnerable members of our society. A woman came into FIA seeking help with her electric bill. She'd never been there before. She was roughly 30 years old with a high school degree. Her husband walked out when she was eight months' pregnant with their third child--the other two are preschoolers--and isn't paying any child support. She had her baby two weeks ago and returned to work last week.

Let me say that again. She had a baby two weeks ago and returned to work one week later. At a restaurant. On her feet the whole shift. Because otherwise she'd lose her job. (Her mother watches the children.) (Here's a reason we need more women in government: because anyone who's given birth understands how inhumane that is.)

Her income--which is above minimum-wage, forty hours per week--is insufficient to their needs. Take away bare-bones rent and utilities--nothing more, not car expenses, not diapers, not food--and she's got less than $400 a month left. That was fine when her husband was in the house and working.

Given her situation--I ran the numbers, it's easy to do--she would be immediately eligible for something like $500 a month in food stamps, and WIC for herself, the infant, and at least one of the other children. WIC is a supplemental nutrition program that would pay for all the baby's formula, plus healthy food like milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables for the rest of them. It's a voucher program that can only be used for specific healthy foods. She'd probably get $300/month worth of food from it right now. So $800 in food per month for a woman and her three children.

Which she isn't getting, because she can't even apply for these programs because the government is shut down.

The safety net we have in place for people exactly like this--hardworking with dependent children--is on furlough.

You can't be pro-life and not care about this woman's children. You can't be against abortion and at the same time support a system that denies her newborn baby food. (I don't know whether she's breastfeeding, but I highly doubt it. Hard to breastfeed when you're working a shift job full time.) It's time for Washington to quit fooling around.